Election Predictions: How Will North Dakota’s Ballots Be Cast?

File photo of I Voted stickers at a Grand Forks polling sites. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Election day is finally here. It’s like the Super Bowl for we political nerds.

Yesterday I was talking on the radio about how this is the 30th election day since I started this blog (counting primary and general elections). I feel old. So, so old.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be election day without a predictions post. So let’s get started.

U.S. Senate

Starting at the top of the ballot, the competition between Congressman Kevin Cramer and incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp has been vigorous (if I might put it nicely).

The last eight publicly-released opinion polls, dating back to June, have shown Cramer with a lead over Heitkamp. The last five polls have shown Cramer with a lead in the double digits, or the high single digits. Most people seem to have written Heitkamp off at this point.

Still, I have some trepidation. Heitkamp has seen a massive influx of money, and she’s been spending it not just on ads but on putting an army of people into contacting voters through phone calls and texts and door knocking. That sort of thing moves the needle.

It’s been repeated ad nauseum, but Heitkamp finished strong in 2012 defying the conclusions of most political observers who expected her to lose. She could do it again.

But her campaign has been far less competent this time around, as compared to her pitch-perfect performance in 2012, and Cramer has proven to be a much more competent opponent than Rick Berg was in that previous cycle.

I think Cramer’s going to win, but it’s probably going to be closer than a lot of people expect.

U.S. House

By running for the Senate, Cramer is vacating his House seat, and the competition for it is between Republican state Senator Kelly Armstrong and former Democratic state Senator Mac Schneider.

But it really hasn’t been much of a competition. Schneider jumped into this race late, just shortly before his party’s state convention, and his candidacy was heavily promoted at the convention by Heitkamp’s political surrogates. It was clear that Heitkamp, at the top of the ballot, wanted Schneider in the race as opposed to former state Rep. Ben Hanson who had already been campaigning for the job for weeks.

Based on the way Schneider has campaigned, I’m baffled at why Heitkamp’s people were so intent on getting him the race. While it has been hard for all of the non-Senate candidates to get out of the shadows of that top-of-the-ticket race, Schneider’s done very little to distinguish himself. He’s a very nice guy, and generally liked across both parties in political circles, but it’s not even very clear to this observer that he wants the job.

That’s been showing up in the polls. Armstrong’s average lead in polling from May through October is roughly 20 points.

Armstrong will win this one in a landslide.

Secretary of State

Outside of the Senate race, the competition for Secretary of State was probably the best bet for Democrats to win on the statewide ballot this cycle.

One reason is that Democrats recruited a strong challenger for the job. State Rep. Josh Boschee is a competent campaigner. He raises a lot of money. He’s been successful in helping turn the previously Republican District 44 blue in Fargo.

Another reason is that Republicans have had a bit of a mess in this race. The incumbent, Al Jaeger, was defeated for the NDGOP’s endorsement at their state convention in the spring by Will Gardner. But shortly after the convention it was revealed that Gardner had a conviction on his record for being a “peeping tom” on the NDSU campus in Fargo years ago. This revelation was too late for Gardner to remove himself from the June primary ballot, however. He won the primary unopposed, but then withdrew from the race. Jaeger, meanwhile, put himself on the ballot as an independent (with an endorsing letter from the NDGOP).

What this means is that there’s no Republican candidate on the ballot for Secretary of State this cycle. Jaeger will be identified as an independent. That could be a problem. One added to the fact that Jaeger’s last several years in his office have been bumpy (thus Republicans choosing Gardner at their convention).

Further complicating things is the presence of another right-of-center candidate in Michael Coachman, who Democrats have been promoting as a way to split the Republican vote.

Still, Jaeger’s name identification is enormous. He’s held this office since Jay Leno started doing the Tonight Show. I don’t think the party affiliation issue is going to hurt him. I even think his name ID can overcome the complaints about his job performance. Like it or not, most voters don’t know much about what the Secretary of State does, and I’m not sure Boschee has done a good enough job of articulating the problems he sees with the status quo.

I think Jaeger wins this one, but it will be close.

Other Statewide Offices

We have other statewide offices on the ballot this cycle. Public Service Commissioners Randy Christmann and Brian Kroshus are on the ballot (the latter at the end of his usual term, the former because his appointment to fill previous commissioner Brian Kalk’s unexpired term has to be confirmed by voters). Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. and Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger are on the ballot as well.

I believe Republicans will sweep these races. The little polling we’ve had on them have shown the Republicans with massive leads. That’s to be expected in a state as heavily Republican as North Dakota. For A Democrat to win they have to overcome that bias for Republicans by articulating a sound argument for their candidacy, and I’m not sure even most Democrats could name their candidates in these races.

Ballot Measures

We have four statewide measures on the ballot this cycle.

I think Measure 1 is probably going to pass. It shouldn’t. It’s a blatantly unconstitutional restriction on political activities and speech, and I suspect it to be struck down through litigation if it does pass, but there is a mountain of out-of-state money from political activists behind it, and its promoters are touting it as a way to bring “ethics” to Bismarck. Most voters won’t know anything more than that, and so will vote for it.

Measure 2 will pass in a landslide. Who is for non-citizen voting?

Measure 3 will probably pass too. The measure is deeply flawed, and the Legislature may even have to call a special session after the election to begin the process of turning it into workable policy, but the truth is lawmakers simply waited too long to begin liberalizing marijuana laws in our state. Public opinion has shifted faster on that issue than opinions among lawmakers, and now we’re going to pay the price through sloppy initiated measure process.

Measure 4 will also likely pass. I’m not sure it should, but we love our volunteer first responders, and most voters will vote for doing something nice for them.

Key Legislative Races

I don’t want to drill down too deeply into the legislative races. Overall I don’t believe much will change. Republicans have such heavy majorities already it’s hard to imagine Democrats losing any more ground. But then, I don’t think Democrats have done enough to make meaningful gains in the state House and Senate either.

I suspect the parties will each lose a few incumbents, and the final seat totals will change very little.

That said, the District 41 race in Fargo is one to watch. Majority Republican Leader Al Carlson is on the ropes, and many expect him to lose. One thing which may bail him out, though, is the Senate race. That district in Fargo is an important one for Cramer, and Republicans have been paying a lot of attention to it. Carlson may be saved by riding on Cramer’s coattails.

The District 35 race in Bismarck is also worth paying attention to. State Senator Erin Oban is the only Democrat elected to partisan office in western North Dakota, and she’s up for re-election for the first time. Many in Democratic circles see her as something of a rising star in the party, but can she hold on? She won the seat by beating Republican Margaret Sitte, but I think that race may have had more to do with Sitte and her arch-conservative views on social issues than it did with Oban or typical partisan politics.

Oban’s challenger is Republican Gary Emineth. Both candidates have raised and spent a lot of money.

It would hurt Republicans to lose Carlson, their House Majority Leader, on election day but I think it would probably hurt Democrats even more to lose Oban.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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